Underwater treadmills, exercise balls, wobble boards, range of motion exercises.
These aren’t the offerings at your local gym, they’re rehab options for cats.
While you might have trouble imagining a cat powering through an underwater treadmill workout, it turns out that given the right motivation and handling, cats respond well to rehab therapies that help to relieve pain and heal injuries.
Thanks to their anatomy — being loose jointed and light on their paws — cats are less likely than dogs to suffer traumatic injuries such as broken bones from falls. But with age they begin to develop stiff hips, elbows, stifles (knees) and tarsi (ankle) joints. Back arthritis is common, too. In cats older than 6 years, 61 percent show signs of degenerative joint disease, a figure that rises to 90 percent in cats older than 12 years.
“If you have a cat that’s middle-aged, this cat most likely is going to develop degenerative joint disease,” said Carolina Medina, a clinical assistant professor in the Integrative Medicine Service at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine.
Medina said that cats also can suffer nerve damage, such as vascular or compressive injuries to the spinal cord, or deformities that make it difficult for them to use their limbs. An example would be an inheritable condition called sacrocaudal dysgenesis, seen in Manx cats. This malformation of the vertebrae of the lower back and tail can cause them to have trouble using their hind legs.
Obesity also puts pressure on already painful joints and decreases cats’ quality of life.
These conditions and more can respond to rehab techniques.
If your cat’s behavior has changed, it may be in pain. The most common signs of pain in cats are:
• Reduced activity, especially at night, when cats tend to be more active.
• Decreased frequency of jumping.
• Resisting handling or petting, especially on the back.
• A stiff gait.
If your cat shows these signs, ask your veterinarian about physical rehab exercises and other techniques, such as acupuncture and cold laser.
Passive and active range of motion exercises help to improve joint integrity, decrease pain and lubricate joints. Walking over unsteady surfaces such as wobble boards and exercise balls builds core strength and balance and improves the cat’s perception of where his limbs are and how they’re moving. Stepping over cavaletti rails improves stride length and range of motion.
At home, you can help your cat by providing cat trees with lower perches, steps to furniture, soft bedding and shallow litter boxes. (A long, shallow seed tray is easy for a cat to enter and exit. Decreasing the amount of litter in the box provides a more stable surface for unsteady cats to walk on.)
The main thing to know is that unlike dogs, cats aren’t people-pleasers. They will do the exercises and sometimes even seem to enjoy them, but when they’re done, they’re done. Don’t try to push them further, Medina said.
“Short sessions are critical. Even food-motivated cats are going to get bored.”